How I Became a Runner

I wrote this post on my tumblr per request of a friend but I'm posting it here too. I’ve gotten lots of other comments in the past few months, on various sites, about how amazing it is that I’m running now but also the commenter “could never be a runner”. While I concede that running isn’t for everyone [some people are dancers but I can’t zumba to save my life without punching myself in the face], a lot of non-runners can be runners if they put their minds to it. The trick is putting your mind to it. Running is as much a mental activity as it is a physical one, especially if you’ve been telling yourself for years that you can’t do it. The other trick is acknowledging that it won’t happen in a day, week, or even month. It takes time. It takes work. But when it happens, it’s kind of amazing. I finished a 5k in 33:53 last month. It took hard work and dedication, and it took about six months, but it wasn’t impossible [even if it felt so at times].

There are programs designed to get you “off the couch and running 3 miles in just two months” but they’re also built with people who have some kind of fitness base. For those of us who don’t, even running 30 seconds/walking 2 minutes/repeating is pretty intimidating. Those programs aren’t designed for us. They’re designed for us somewhere down the line but for right now, we need something more basic.

First off: You have to acknowledge that this takes time. It does. That’s not something that most people want to hear but it’s the reality. It took me about six months, give or take, to get where I am today. This included months of building up my cardiovascular fitness before I even considered running. It also included a few failed attempts at running before it finally stuck. [it also included a sprained ankle but, you know, setbacks and all that.]

Second: You should build a base of fitness with low-impact, “easier” exercise before attempting running. Running is hard work. Nothing challenges your muscles and your mind quite like it. There are loads of exercises to prepare you for it, however. Cycling and the elliptical are the two I implemented the most, but any exercises will help you improve.

Third: It’ll take time to learn to love running but if you’ve been running consistently for 3-6 months and don’t love it, don’t force it. Running isn’t for everyone. If you want to be active in some way but aren’t entirely set on running, there are plenty of other things to try! If you just focus on running, even though you hate it, you’ll be miserable and end up doing nothing at all. [Sure, the race swag one gets is nice but it’s not everything.]

Fourth: How and where you run are extremely important factors. How: I’m not just talking about form [although that’s important too, as well as proper shoes], but following a training program and sticking to a consistent schedule. Figure out if you’re a morning exerciser or evening [this might also depend on the time of year/weather]. I love running in the afternoons or early evenings but when I have to run in the morning or skip it, I do it. My results are considerably worse, but it's better than not running. Where: Do you like the treadmill, or find it boring? It can be a good training tool but some people loathe it. Do you like running loops on the track so you know what to expect, or does that get tedious? Do you like getting out on a bike path or your city streets to enjoy the scenery, or would you rather stay inside on a treadmill, away from harsh weather and your neighbors? Everyone has a preference, and figuring out yours will be an extremely helpful tool.

And fifth: Talk about it. Tell everyone you know. Tell your friends that you want to go running at this specific time and make sure they bug you about it if you don’t [I’ve done this more times than I can count]. Make plans to run in races a few months [or more, if you’re on the slow track like me] down the line. Get excited about those races, and about every additional minute/mile you add into your routine. Your friends might get sick of you, or you might inspire them to try as well [and then you’ll have friends to run races with!]. Or find a running community so you can talk about your accomplishments to your heart’s content without annoying everyone else. [they’re also great for accountability. If you’re a regular poster and then stop commenting all of a sudden, people will notice and make sure you’re keeping up with your goals!]

Those are my tips. And now, here’s my story of how i went from “barely mobile” to running 3.1 miles.

Full backstory: this past winter, i was ~85 pounds overweight, very unfit, and barely mobile. Walking half a block down the street left me with intense pain in my shins/calves and I gave up, temporarily, on ever being fit. [As of right now, I’ve lost about 45 pounds so I’m still “overweight” but whatever.] The rest of the backstory: I was fit and at my ~goal weight~ [135-140lbs] for a brief period of 12 months of my life in 2007. I did it in a healthy manner but it didn’t stick for a whole variety of reasons [stress, poverty, depression, etc.]. That was the only time, in 20+ years, where I was fit and healthy.

Running never came naturally to me. Even now, I read running technique books and they’re like, “Look how children run! It’s so natural to them!” It wasn’t to me. Nobody ever taught me how to run and thus, I never learned. Nobody ever said, “You should build up your endurance gradually so your lungs don’t feel like they’re going to burst 20 seconds in, which results in you giving up for another year”. They should have. But I didn’t learn that until recently. As a result, I went a lot of years without running, or failing miserably at it.

I was also told, lack of instinct aside, that I would never be a runner because my body is, to put it bluntly, fucked up. I have a degenerative disease in both my knees, I was “fat and lazy”, I was more prone to sprained ankles than anyone else my doctor had ever seen. I’d been told to give up on running since I was eight years old [when my knees started going]. Part of the reason I wanted to become a runner was just to prove all of these people wrong. I don’t like being told that I can’t do things. That just makes me even more determined to accomplish them. [People should tell me I can’t do things more often, maybe I’d have more accomplishments in my life!]

I started at the end of February. 30 seconds of jumping jacks left me breathless and ready to quit but, wow, I’m glad I didn’t. I pushed through, took breaks when I really needed to, and had more asthma attacks than I could count. I sprained my ankle [unrelated] pretty early on so for the first week or two, I focused on strength training. My muscles [mostly my arms] were constantly sore and I had to take more days off than planned. This is not a problem. Most programs call for 1 or 2 days off between each muscle group but if you need more, definitely take it! There was no way that I’d continue on with all those shoulder raises if I’d stuck to the schedule I was attempting, considering that I could barely move the day after a workout. [I was also only using 2lb weights to start off with. There are people in the “fitness scene” who will try to shame you from using the light weights but if that’s a challenge when you start, then that’s okay!]

Finally, my ankle started feeling better and I added cardio into my routine. Mostly boxing on the Wii [Wii sports is severely underrated because it comes free with the Wii system but seriously, the boxing will give you a great workout] and tae bo once I could put pressure on my ankle. A few other Wii games thrown in here and there but they were pretty hit or miss. I started walking again, just around my city to the grocery store and stuff. Whatever I could do to get my ankle and my body back into shape.

In April, the weather was finally nice again and I took my bike out for the first time since September. Again, full disclosure: I am a cyclist at heart and love riding my bike. I rode 20-30 miles every day for a couple years, living in Chicago, as part of my job. But Chicago’s incredibly flat and the hills of New England had posed a challenge since moving last summer. Also, the roads aren’t maintained as well as Chicago’s throughout the winter so I’d put my bike away for those 6 months for safety reasons. Anyway, in April, I took my bike out and rode a few miles. They were hard. It wasn’t just the hills. Six months away from my bike, spent gaining weight and becoming even more unhealthy, had changed my body. I barely made it to the start of the bike path [about a mile and a half from my house], and took a ~45 minute break on a bench before heading home. I didn’t even ride on the bike path. I just said “oh hey, there you are” and went home. 3 miles total for the day. My former self would’ve scoffed at that distance but for now, it was enough.

Despite this, I thought that, for some reason, I would be able to run. Even though cycling has always been easier than running for me. A few days later, I biked down to the path and tried running. I set a goal in my head: I would run to the curve in the path, and then walk back before repeating. Mapmyrun tells me that this was about a tenth of a mile. At the time? It felt like miles. I ran to the curve [somewhere between 40-45 seconds] and didn’t think I would make it. I was out of breath, felt like I would collapse, but somehow continued. I walked back to my starting point [it took me about 2 minutes to walk back] and repeated. I got a cramp in my side during the fourth run. My ankle started bothering me on the eighth, so I stopped. The pain the next day told me that I wasn’t ready. Not just my ankle, my entire body wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t breathe at the end of each run and my entire body felt like it had been hit by a train the next day. Soreness is to be expected when trying out something new [especially if you forget to stretch afterwards]. Pain and barely being able to move is not something you should experience.

I spent the next couple of months focusing on cycling, working up my endurance and improving my lungs. I lifted weights and started doing a pushup challenge. When cycling became easier, I went longer distances [2 hour rides became the norm] and added in hills and speed work. I tried things that I wasn’t comfortable with [see: zumba] but challenged my body in different ways. I tried out so many workout dvds. I did yoga every week. Bit by bit, my body became stronger, limber, and more ready for running… except for my ankle, which was still bothering me.

I finally joined a gym mid-June and got reacquainted with my favourite machine: the elliptical. If you’re interested in running and have access to one of these, i strongly suggest that you try it out! The motion mimics a running movement, but it’s easier and considerably less impact [which was great for my ankle]. It gets your body used to the movement of running, and you can get up to pretty decent speeds even if you’re not comfortable with running yet. I did the elliptical consistently for about a month before moving over to the treadmill and trying out running on that.

And… running on the treadmill was hard. I just wanted to try it out, to see if my ankle could handle the impact [running on a treadmill is a softer impact than running outside], so I just ran for 30 seconds. I was out of breath and feeling like I would die after just those 30 seconds. This was nothing like the elliptical, and I was going at a slower speed than that! [Still, I do think the elliptical helped, in the long run.] After walking for a while, I got off the treadmill for the day.

Two days later, I returned, determined to run again. Just another 30 seconds. And I did it, and it wasn’t as awful as the previous attempt. The next time, it was even easier. So I upped my running time to one minute, and repeated that for a week. Then I did *two* intervals of running a minute each, with some walking between. After a week of that, I added in another interval. This was… kind of getting easier! After adding in a fourth interval, I realized that I was actually on track to start sparkpeople’s rookie running plan so that’s what I did. I followed that plan all the way to my 5k, with a couple modifications here and a repeated week there. It wasn’t always easy. New weeks were usually met with dread and my mind saying, “No, I can’t do this. There’s no way.” But I had to stop listening to my mind and just try to do my best. And you know what? Almost all the time, I could complete the training plan for the day [and on those rare days when I couldn’t, it was okay. Not everything’s going to go perfectly all the time].

It took until week 3 of that training plan to realize that I was actually *liking* running. And that’s pretty normal. Most people don’t love running right off the bat. It’s difficult, it takes a lot of mental power as well as physical, and it [personally, at least] came with a lot of self-doubt. But one day I was just suddenly like, “Hey, I’m running! And I’m not counting down every second to the next walking interval! I’m actually enjoying this!” So, about seven solid weeks of running before I actually liked it. And then a month after that, I ran a 5k and it was amazing and I’m so proud of myself.

My next 5k is actually coming up in a week and a half [Halloween Monster Dash!] and I’m so not ready because I took a few weeks off for a knee injury, but I’m back to training and planning on just doing my best. That’s all that really matters, honestly, when it comes to running [and mostly everything else in life]. Just do your best. I’m never going to win a race [3 miles in 15 minutes? Ha, yeah right!] but just crossing the finish line is enough of a win for me.